For all its boisterous energy,
Lynn Nottage’s Ruined is a delicate dance of horror and hope.
The 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning-play, currently making its regional
debut at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood, portrays a world consumed
by chaos and brutality. But the bleakness is skillfully leavened with
disarming interludes of lightness and laughter.
On one level, it is a reportage
play: Nottage interviewed survivors of the ongoing civil war in the
Democratic Republic of Congo, and her fictional tale reflects their
harrowing experiences. But it also contains moments of poetic beauty
and universal resonance that lift it beyond journalism into the richer
realm of art.
The setting is a brothel, a
shabbily festive establishment located in a rural area of the war-torn
African nation. Both the government forces and the rebels claim the
territory as their own, and when they’re in town, both stop by Mama’s
Place for some rest and recreation.
Mama Nadi (Portia) is clearly
playing a dangerous game, and there’s never much question that her
fortress of foreplay will eventually be overrun. But the domineering
proprietress effectively masks any fears with brash declarations that,
in her establishment, she is in charge. For one thing, no one gets served
before emptying the bullets from his weapon.
She’s a survivor, a brave
woman with business savvy, and her persona is strictly what’s-in-it-for-me.
But when she takes in two women who literally have nowhere else to go,
it becomes clear that her hidden tender side has not completely withered,
even in this wasteland.
One of the women (Quincy Tyler
Bernstine) becomes a prostitute—the only realistic occupation for
someone who has been sexually assaulted, and is thus considered a disgrace
to her village. The other (Condola Rashad) has been reproductively “ruined”
by brutal rapes and beatings; her effortful walking suggests the deep
pain she feels with every step. But she effectively earns her keep with
her singing voice and bookkeeping skills.
The other key character is
called the Professor. He’s a traveling salesman (and uncle to the
“ruined” young woman) who, like Mama Nadi, is doing what he has to
do to survive the craziness. Russell G. Jones gives the strongest performance
in an outstanding cast, embodying this deeply vulnerable man’s dignity,
defiance and earthy good humor.
It’s an imperfect play, a
little too diffuse for its own good. From time to time, vividly drawn
but secondary characters, such as the charismatic leaders of the opposing
militias, virtually hijack the proceedings, drawing the focus away from
the women who make up its emotional core.
The musical numbers, featuring
an on-stage two-piece band, provide wonderful energy and color, but
they’re arguably overextended. Moreover, several characters remain
frustratingly under-defined. When one of the prostitutes finally tells
her tragic back story, the power of her viscerally moving monologue
makes you wish others were given similar opportunities.
Still, Kate Whoriskey’s staging
is vivid and lively, and the tender final scene is enormously touching.
Ruined contains deliberate echoes of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother
Courage and Her Children, but unlike Brecht, she wants the audience
to feel an emotional connection to the characters. To say she succeeds
is a huge understatement.
Of course, Mother Courage
is set during an earlier, European war.
Male aggression run amuck, and the resultant violation and victimization
of women, is a sadly familiar motif of human history. Nottage reminds
us of this by focusing our attention on a place where it is happening
right now, today.
Ruined continues through Oct. 17 at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood Village, Los Angeles. Information: (310) 208-5454, or www.geffenplayhouse.com.